100 years of desert research
Researcher William Lehman in 1958 in the nursery at the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center. (Courtesy of U.C. Desert Research and Extension Center)
“With gold coins — can you believe that?” said Alan Robertson, the project historian for the center who has been researching its history for the past three months.
There are nine research stations in the University of California system and the desert research center is the oldest of them all, Robertson said. The purpose of the center is to develop research, publish and disseminate the information.
This year the research center is celebrating its centennial anniversary, and to honor that it is having a series of events.
The first one was a Community Field Day that took place Saturday. In the spring there will be several field days primarily for researchers. In October, there will be a formal commemorative event with officials from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources divisions.
The land that started it all was purchased from the Gleasons, a family from Los Angeles, according to the title.
The Gleason family owned much of the property surrounding the center, said Robertson, and though the initial purchase happened in 1911, it was until May 1912 when the center had its first open house.
In the beginning, this center for agricultural research was called the Imperial Valley Experiment Farm. But most called it the Meloland field station, said Robertson, and “that’s how the locals still call it.”
Two more names came along the way before the current name was put in place in the 1980s.
W.F. Holt, founder of Holtville, and Harold Bell Wright, author of “The Winning of Barbara Worth,” were two of the most significant contributors for the center, said Robertson.
This land was then donated to the University of California regents to meet the need for agricultural research, he said.
The center expanded in October 1912. The Gleasons sold another 10 acres for $1,000, Robertson said, and in April of the next year sold another 10 acres. But it’s unclear where that money came from.
In October 1913, the UC Regents sold 10 acres to Imperial County for $10, according to the land title.
“But this is what I don’t understand,” said Robertson. In exchange for the land the county seems to have given the UC Regents an unknown amount of shares of the Imperial Water Co.
“So that does mean we (got) water rates? I don’t know. It’s a mystery,” he said.
Two more expansions during the 1940s followed. The final expansion took place in 1947, when 175 acres was bought by the regents. “As far as land expansion that was it,” Robertson said.
The operation of the farm was “very low-key” in the early years, with only one agronomist and one superintendent.
In 1946 a building program started, said Robertson. A seed house, three residences, four cottages and a domestic water system were built, he said, “and since then there have been numerous improvements” including a greenhouse in 1962 and a reservoir in 1973.
According to the 1984 annual report, from 1957 to 1984, 5,017 foreign visitors from 113 countries have come either to learn or do research. How much that number has increased in the last 27 years is unclear, said Robertson while noting it may have at least doubled.
Roughly 20 to 30 researchers have worked in the center since it opened.
The amount of publications, including journals, magazines and newspaper contributions between the center and its sister department, the Imperial County Cooperative Extension, are in the tens of thousands, according to farm adviser Eric Natwick, who is in charge of entomological research.
“Nowhere else does agriculture quite duplicate the Valley’s,” the report states, “and information gathered elsewhere never exactly fits the needs of this desert section.”
And this may be why the research center is so valuable for the agriculture and the farmers of Imperial Valley.
Staff Writer Alejandro Davila can be reached at 760-337-3445 or email@example.com